Cutting health care exactly the wrong tack to embrace

Just a couple of months ago campaign rhetoric was flowing like champagne at a wedding reception. That rhetoric, from both Democrats and Republicans, was all about making sure we had a “world-class” education for the children of our state, and that health care would be both affordable and accessible. But that was then, and with the campaigns over, our elected officials are dropping their campaign promises like hot potatoes. Their excuse is that the recession is cutting revenues for government, and so government services must be cut.

Our Governor proposes to cut over $1 billion from K-12 education, almost a half a billion from the 2-year and 4-year higher education system, and another $100 million from health care. These actions will stunt our state for many, many years, far beyond the current recession. But it is during this recession, especially, that the governor’s proposals are wrong-headed. When the private economy goes belly up, then we need public services more than ever.

In the coming months, many workers will lose their jobs and then their health coverage. That is why we need programs like the Basic Health Plan, now more than ever. And especially now, we need community colleges to take in and re-train workers who have lost their jobs, preparing them to participate in the revitalization of our economy when the opportunity arrives. We also need to honor our duty to educate all our kids to be thoughtful and productive citizens. We cannot forfeit the next generation to this recession.

Oregon’s Governor, Ted Kulongoski, is charting the course that we should be taking here. Gov. Kulongoski has stated, “I will not lead Oregon into an extended period where we don’t have the education and work force skills, infrastructure, renewable energy, capacity to innovate or quality of life necessary to build our economy, and win in the global marketplace.” So Kulongoski is proposing a 2-cent a gallon gas tax increase to fund a transportation initiative, at the same time creating 6,700 new jobs. He wants to not just talk about, but actually provide health coverage for all children in Oregon, and is willing to do so with a provider tax on hospitals and health insurers. He wants to expand adult health coverage with an increase in the cigarette tax by 60 cents. And he wants to increase the corporate minimum tax to fund colleges and universities.

We could do the same thing in our state, if our leaders were ready to raise more revenue. Instead, our governor has begun to drop 7,700 people from Basic Health coverage. That is 7,700 low-income working adults denied health coverage. Some of these folks will put off care until their health gets really bad, and then go to the emergency room. That is the most expensive health care, and we all end up paying for it. Some of these folks will frankly, be afraid on running up health costs and avoid care until it is too late. That is, some will die for lack of coverage.

There is a simple way we could avoid the denial of health care. In our state, we don’t tax candy. We should. Candy adds to poor nutrition, children’s cavities, obesity and early onset of diabetes. If we put a sales tax on candy, like we have on clothes, we could garner over $60 million in the next two years. That’s enough to preserve and even expand Basic Health coverage. It is a tax that makes a lot of sense all by itself. And when it is dedicated to health care, it literally is a life-saver.

There are options for funding education, too, including raising taxes on growing and high paying areas such as professional and software services. High tech employers, after all, are the very ones clamoring for better math and science education.

Our state government is not run out of Tim Eyman’s fear factory in Edmonds. It is housed in our state capitol of Olympia. If we are serious about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we don’t need politicians wallowing in this recession. We need our governor to lead us out of the recession. We need to take to heart President-Elect Obama’s rallying call: “Yes, we can.”

John Burbank, executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute (www.eoionline.org ), writes every other Wednesday. Write to him in care of the institute at 1900 Northlake Way, Suite 237, Seattle, WA 98103. His e-mail address is john@eoionline.org.

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